From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Sun Dec 14 2008 - 15:04:15 EST
ECONOMIC CRUNCH - TheStar.com | Ontario | Tough times for 'Mom and Pop'
corner stores Tough times for 'Mom and Pop' corner stores
New rules on cigarette sales hurting even the scrappiest of variety store
operators, who already work long hours and see tiny profit margins
Dec 14, 2008 04:30 AM
Lesley Ciarula Taylor
The clock with the lavender plastic rim on the back wall of H&H Convenience
is an hour and 18 minutes fast. This means nothing to Almaz Nebai. She tells
time by the front door.
Starting at 4:30 p.m., it opens every few minutes. That lasts three hours.
After that, every 20 minutes or so for another hour, then it tapers off
A young Hispanic woman wants her regular small pack of Podium cigarettes,
the cheapest at $6 with tax. A man in Docksiders and khakis buys two cans of
Arizona tea and stuffs them into a backpack. An Asian woman in heels pulls
money from her Louis Vuitton wallet to pay for two packs of DuMaurier. A
middle-aged man wants a small Peter Jackson Light with his two cans of
"If I get a dollar from the cigarettes, I'm happy," says Nebai.
"With Arizona, there's not much profit, a few cents, but my customers love
it. It's good for you."
Times are tough all over, but "not much profit," that might as well be the
theme song for Ontario's convenience stores, which have been struggling to
get by since the province banned the open display of cigarettes last summer.
Between 45 and 65 per cent of corner store profits came from cigarette
sales; since such "power walls" were banned that's been cut by 30 to 50 per
Dave Bryans, president of the Ontario Convenience Stores Association,
expects a third of Ontario's 10,000 convenience stores will be out of
business in five years unless the province curbs illegal tobacco sales and
starts letting proven, reliable stores sell beer and wine.
But, for now, shopkeepers like Nebai, earning just pennies per hour, make do
selling what they can.
Cigarettes, snacks and drinks pay the bills, but not all of them. Since she
bought the business in April and moved into the flat at the back, she's been
hunting for deals at Costco and Cash and Carry, clicking through Internet
sites to find better suppliers. Rent is $1,600 a month.
A woman at Cash and Carry sent Nebai to Imperial Tobacco, so she gets some
brands delivered. The rest she buys every morning, before she opens,
whatever she is low on. Podium, made in Caledonia by Lanwest Manufacturing
for sale off-reserve, comes from Costco.
With a diploma in accounting from Algonquin College in Ottawa and marketing
courses from Seneca, Nebai has plans for this corner north of the Dundas
West subway station. There's a Slovenian deli next door, a Jehovah's Witness
temple down the street. Budget, Price Chopper and Shoppers are nearby.
Houses on the streets behind her sell for just under a half-million. The
store was Lee-Bee's West Indian Grocery for years before a couple tried it
as a variety store, then gave up and sold to Nebai. She inherited candles,
ceramic frogs, hair extensions and shelves of Christmas decorations with the
hardware, Pringles, canned spaghetti sauce and kitchen stuff.
Around 11 one morning, she grinds Van Houtte beans for a fresh pot, splits a
pack of Hostess cupcakes on two napkins and settles down to talk.
"I loved Ottawa, but when I came here, I loved Toronto, too. It was my first
time driving on a highway when I came here from Ottawa."
"I found this place online for a reasonable price. It's a really good
location, the main customer is from the subway, people back and forth in the
morning and evening. During the day, they come from the neighbourhood. There
are a lot of East Bloc people living around here. Everyone is very nice,
very nice. It was a struggle at first. I was sometimes shocked that nobody
was here, but it's picking up, slowly."
She and a friend left Asmara, the once-lovely Italianate capital of Eritrea,
in 1985, when the 30-year civil war with Ethiopia was at its most brutal,
walking for 11 days into Sudan. She was 25. "It was a terrible time. We were
hiding from Ethiopian soldiers and Eritrean fighters. But the land around us
as we walked was beautiful and we made a promise, my friend and I, that we
would come back. She went to Sweden. She called me a few years ago to ask,
`Remember the promise?' But she is dead now, of cancer."
There's not much room for sentimentality. A woman in a hijab and long skirt
with no time to waste floats in looking for a toy for her son, who is 4
today. She leaves with Spider-Man and a long-distance calling card.
"I am so happy here," Nebai says. "There is hope for the future. I'm always
thinking, planning the strategy."
She's been asking the Ontario Lottery Corporation for a terminal and might
just get one this month. If she gets approved and there is a machine
available, the security deposit runs from $2,000 to up to $6,000 for a
full-scale Lotto Centre.
A key-cutting service, cellphone cards, movie rentals, maybe stamps although
a store not far away already sells them and Canada Post picks its spots
based on postal code. If she buys 60 DVD movies, a company will throw in
another 1,000 but she needs a $100 Film Exchange Retail Licence to rent
them. Her cut from the ATM machine is half the $1.50 service fee; if she
buys it for $2,500, her cut is 85 per cent.
"I tried bread but I had to eat it myself. Perishables are a waste of time -
people go to Price Chopper."
She tours the shelves, rating each item. "Bathroom goods are well-demanded.
The house materials are really working well."
She brought a Zippo lighter display cabinet up from the basement and added
cigarette cases to the stock because customers asked for them. If she gets
the lottery machine, if she gets the cell phone card business (a $1,500 down
payment, then $14 a month), if she can buy the ATM machine, if she can rent
DVDs, if she builds up enough loyal customers, she might make it.
The store opens at 9 a.m., closes at midnight. "Sometimes, it can be like a
prison." Then she smiles. "I didn't marry, I tried to. Now I like not
answering to someone."
Her sister and two brothers, one with a master's in engineering and another
with a degree in economics, wanted her to move to Germany to reunite the
family, but she prefers Canada. After a refugee camp in Sudan, she had gone
to England for surgery on her leg, gnarled with polio. A United Church in
Ottawa sponsored her as a refugee.
"It is amazing. I never thought that I would live in Canada. We studied it
in geography in school - lots of snow! - and now I've become a Canadian. I
feel at home here. Everyone is from far away."
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